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New cantors in Worcester share a devotion to music and Judaism

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – Temple Emanuel Sinai and Congregation Beth Israel have both welcomed new cantors this summer. ­Cantor Rachel Reef-Simpson comes to Worcester from Westwood, where she was Temple Beth David’s co-clergy/cantorial soloist for seven years. Cantor Jeri Robins has been serving as cantor/director of education at Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody for the past two years.

Not only are both women second career cantors, but they are also good friends who are delighted to find themselves working together in Worcester.

“We have been friends for years,” says Cantor Robins. “It’s a real benefit to the community that it’s worked out this way.”

“We bounce things off of each other,” says Cantor Reef-Simpson. “We’re there for each other, as cantorial clergy and colleagues.”

Cantor Jeri Robins recognized the welcoming nature of Congregation Beth Israel before she even sent in an application for the open position for a part-time cantor.

One Saturday morning last March, she slipped into a Shabbat service incognito to see what the community was like.

“Within a few moments of sitting in the chapel, I had been invited to have an aliyah and the rabbi came over to introduce herself,” she recalls. “I hadn’t even opened my mouth to sing – it’s hard to hide when you’re a singer – and they had no idea who I was.”

The warm and friendly experience told her exactly what she needed to know about the BI community.

Her more formal interactions with synagogue representatives involved in the search process went just as well, and she took up her duties in Worcester at a Shabbat service and welcome barbecue on July 17.

Raised in Cleveland and the Boston area, Robins started singing in musical theater in the second grade – and has never stopped.

She continued to sing in synagogue and area choirs, as well as in community theater productions, as she pursued a business career, working in the packaged goods and technology industries in marketing, finance and strategy roles and as a retained executive recruiter.

“I have played both Chava and Hodel in ‘Fiddler,’” she says of community theater. “I was five months pregnant with my daughter in one performance – it created some interesting costuming challenges!”

She was equally committed to Judaism. As a teenager, she was involved in NEFTY and served as a regional officer for BBYO; she went to Camp Tel Noar in New Hampshire and was a Hillel service leader during college at Carnegie-Mellon. She and her husband, Steve, raised their two children, Corey and Jordan, at Temple Emanuel in Newton, where she took part in leadership.

In 2007, however, she enrolled at Hebrew College to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish Education and Cantorial Ordination. She was ordained as a cantor in 2013.

Why the change?

“I enjoyed my business career, but I found that, although it was intellectually satisfying, it was not spiritually satisfying,” she says.

The initial impetus to make such a significant shift came when she was asked to find a High Holiday cantor for Temple Emanuel after their cantor had departed.

“I started listening to people’s submissions, their audition tapes, and joking with the committee that if we didn’t find someone, I would do it.”

A few months later, she led services for the first time since college.

“In that particular moment, it felt really right,” she says. “I came home and looked up on the web to see if I could find some information about taking classes and studying Hebrew. I discovered that Hebrew College was a mile from my house and had exactly what I was looking for.”

In addition to her position as part-time cantor at Beth Israel, she is also the new director of education and youth engagement at Congregation Or Atid in Wayland.

She will be in Worcester on Mondays and Thursdays, working with b’nai mitzvah students and youth as well as adult education. She will be present on two Shabbatot every month, High Holidays and festivals.

“I’ve been impressed by how educated the BI community is and their commitment to Judaism,” she says. “It feels like a place I would join.”

She is also very much looking forward to working with Rabbi Aviva Fellman, whose warmth and creativity have defined her own first year at Beth Israel.

“There is an energy associated with Rabbi Fellman and having a young family,” says Cantor Robins. “She’s obviously incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable – a real blessing in a clergy partner.”

Her varied background gives the new cantor a diverse perspective. Though she grew up in the Reform movement, she brought up her own children at a Conservative synagogue and received her training in a pluralistic atmosphere.

“I bring experience with a broader spectrum of liturgical music than someone who is more movement-centric,” she says.

Cantor Robins is excited about sharing her love of the liturgy and Jewish music. She quotes Ron Wolfson’s three important components of creating welcoming services: “music, music, music!”

Further up the road on Salisbury Street, Cantor Rachel Reef-Simpson is settling into her own new role as Temple Emanuel Sinai’s cantorial soloist and family engagement coordinator.

“Born and raised a Bostonian,” she says, Cantor Rachel, as she prefers to be called, graduated from Boston College with a degree in communication and studied voice at the Berklee College of Music. She and her husband, Phil Simpson, a senior principal marketing manager, and their two sons lived in Franklin until their move to Holden this summer.

For a decade, she was in the theater business and sang jazz and cabaret shows and performed in musical theater before becoming a cantorial soloist as a second career.  She served as cantorial soloist, music educator, choir director and Hebrew teacher at Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin for five years.

After receiving her Cantorial Certificate of Arts from Hebrew College in 2007, she took a position at Temple Beth David in Westwood, where she was co-clergy and cantorial soloist for seven years.

Cantor Reef-Simpson is currently part of the first cohort of six cantorial soloists who are participating in the brand new Cantor Certification Program at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College in New York.   Starting her fourth year of study, she will receive investiture by May 2016.

The vigorous program was ideal for her.

The standard HUC-JIR program, which calls for four years of study in New York, Cincinnati or Los Angeles and a year in Israel, was not feasible, she says. “I was already a working professional and had a family.”

The new Cantor Certification, restricted to candidates who have already been working in a congregation full-time for five or more years, offers non-residential learning.

Students Skype weekly, meet with a private coach either in person or remotely, and come together every three months for five days of intensive study in New York City.

Although the program is considered part-time and class time is six to eight hours a week, “there is just as much time in study and homework,” she says. “It’s pretty rigorous. And requirements are such that there are only six of us in the first cohort to get into the program.”

For admission, candidates are tested in Hebrew, music theory, interview, Torah reading, audition, and psychological testing in addition to undergoing an interview and audition.

Last summer, she and her five colleagues were able to spend the entire summer in Israel, following the same program as the first-year students in the standard program.

She is now delighted to find herself at Temple Emanuel Sinai, where she has found the community “warm and welcoming and hospitable,” she says.

“I’ve been involved in very hamish, warm, family-oriented congregations, and I wanted to be involved in another congregation that was warm and hamish. I got that sense from the people here from the initial phone call.”

She and Rabbi Valerie Cohen made an immediate connection.

“Upon meeting her, I had a feeling that she and I would make a wonderful holy partnership, working for this community together,” she says.

At Emanuel Sinai, Cantor Rachel – a self-proclaimed hugger and “Mama Bear” — hopes to connect with people in the congregation as well as throughout the community.

“As the family engagement coordinator as well as the cantorial presence here, I have an opportunity to make people part of the community and also be able to infuse my love of Judaism.”

Pamela Zinn, co-president of the congregation with Jonah Cuker, says that the new cantor has “already become part of our family. She understands how to connect on an individual basis.”

Moreover, notes Zinn, “Cantor Rachel fills the room not only with beautiful sounds but a deep sense of spirituality expressed through music.”

Together, as friends and colleagues, Cantor Reef-Simpson and Cantor Robins are sharing their dual devotion to music and to Judaism with the Jewish community of Central Massachusetts.

“I’ve been joking that we should get a two-family house together,” says Cantor Rachel.

CAP: Cantor Jeri Robbins, left, the new cantor at Congregation Beth Israel and Rachel Reef-Simpson, the new cantorial soloist at Temple Emanuel Sinai, are colleagues and good friends.

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